Wednesday, June 30, 2010


London Before London is a new permanent exhibition at the London Museum that explores the story of the Thames Valley and the people who lived here from 450,000 BCE to the founding of Londinium in 50 CE.

Beginning with a time when London was nothing but tundra, and the local population would fit on a double decker bus, the exhibition explores the relationship between human communities and their surroundings. In the centre of the gallery, a spectacular 'River Wall' features over 300 objects dredged from The river Thames' depths - many of them bronze and iron swords laid there to please the gods of the water.

The gallery also contains the remains of one of the oldest people to have been found in the London region. The skeleton is between 5640 and 5100 years old and is displayed alongside a facial reconstruction. The entire exhibited collection is online to browse, search and do tours through, and you can also play games, see the layout of the gallery and more on the extensive London Before London exhibition website.

Contact: Museum of London, 150 London Wall, London EC2Y 5HN (England); tel: 020 7001 9844 - email:

Source: Museum of London (May 2010)


A team of archaeologists have discovered a fortification system at the Minoan town of Gournia, a discovery which rebukes the popular myth that the Minoans were a peaceful society with no need for defensive structures.

The team's efforts were led by Professor Vance Watrous and Matt Buell of the University at Buffalo. Located on the north coast, Gournia was in use during the neo-palatial period (ca. 1700-1450 BC), when Minoan civilization was at its height. The town sits atop a low ridge with four promontories on its coastline. Two of these promontories end in high vertical cliffs that give the town a defensive advantage, and it is here that the fortification system was discovered.

The team weren’t able to excavate the area, and so relied on photography, drawing and surveying to identify the fortifications. The eastern-most promontory had a heavy wall that was about 27 meters long. Beside it the team found a semi-circular platform of stone, almost nine meters in diameter, which they believe is the remains of a tower or bastion. The other fortified promontory had a two meter thick wall, running east-west, “as if to close off access from the sea,” said Buell.

The other two promontories slope gently down to the shore, and would have provided easy access to the town. “It was on these two promontories”, said Professor Watrous, “that the Minoans built structures.”

The town consists of around 60 tightly-packed houses, a ship shed, and a small palace in the center, and archaeologists have discovered evidence of wine making, bronze-working and stone-working at the site. “Gournia gives you, the visitor, a real feeling of what an Aegean town was actually like. Walking up the streets, past the houses, you feel like you’ve been transported into the past,” said Buell.

I've been there and agree with Buell so its one of my favorite archaeological sites.

In addition to the beach fortifications, it also appears that the Minoans built a second line of defense further inland. Heading back from the beach, there were two walls, together running about 180 meters east to west. Backed by a tower, or bastion, the walls would have posed a formidable challenge to any invader trying to march into the town.

Defenders manning this system of fortification would have rained projectiles down on attackers, by using bows and slings. The walls had stone foundations and were made of mud brick, making them sturdy enough to stand on.

Tombs uncovered by Hawes and other excavators have shown people buried with swords. Watrous said that there was one particular tomb that produced an entire collection of daggers, swords and other items.

However, Gournia’s fortifications did not prevent the town’s demise. The town fell around 1450 BC, along with other Minoan settlements. A new group, the Mycenaeans, appeared on Crete at this time, taking over the island.

One thing that excavators can say is that the people of Gournia had something worth fighting for. Many of the goods they made – such as the wine and the bronze implements - were for export, suggesting that the people had some level of wealth.


Archaeologists have investigated a site at Hambleden in Buckinghamshire (Thames Valley) of a mass burial of 97 infants at a Roman villa and believe it may have been a brothel. All died at 40 weeks gestation, very soon after birth.

Archaeologist Dr Jill Eyers said: "The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it's got to be a brothel." With little or no effective contraception, unwanted pregnancies could have been common at Roman brothels, explained Dr Eyers, who works for Chiltern Archaeology.

Archaeological records suggest infants were not considered to be "full" human beings until about the age of two, said Dr Eyers. Children any younger than that age were not buried in cemeteries. As a result, infant burials tended to be at domestic sites in the Roman era.

Even so, say experts, the number at the Yewden villa at Hambleden is extraordinary.
"There is no other site that would yield anything like the 97 infant burials," said Dr Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist at English Heritage's Centre for Archaeology, who has been investigating the finds.

The Hambleden site, close to the River Thames, was excavated 100 years ago and identified as a high status Roman villa. The dig was on a massive scale but is now buried under a wheat field.

But meticulous records were left by a naturalist and archaeologist called Alfred Heneage Cocks. More than 300 boxes full of artefacts, pottery and bones were recently re-discovered at Buckinghamshire County Museum along with Cocks' original
report published in 1921, and a small photo archive. The records give precise locations for the infant bodies, which were hidden under walls or buried under courtyards close to each other. Cocks' original report paid little attention to these remains, which are now being tested for the first time by English Heritage.

The Hambleden investigation features in a new BBC TV archaeology series, Digging for Britain presented by Dr Alice Roberts, to be broadcast on BBC Two in July and August.

Monday, June 28, 2010


Now known as the Coggalbeg Hoard, a collection of gold artifacts, dating back 4,000 years were saved by the police after being dumped by pharmacy thieves unaware of their priceless takings. The hoard comprises of a gold lunula (a crescent shaped ceremonial ornament) and two small golden discs, both of which date to between 2300 and 1800 BCE.

Originally discovered in a Coggalbeg bog, the artifacts were keptin a safe in Sheehan's Pharmacy in Strokestown, County Roscommon since 1947. Burglars had raided the pharmacy safe of the family business and the Sheehan family notified the police of its contents. Hubert Lannon, who died just 3 weeks earlier, had discovered the item in 1945 when cutting turf on his land and gave them to the local pharmacy for safekeeping. The family had vaguely remembered about the pieces stored by their father, PJ Sheehan, who passed away in the 1960s and notified the police. It was a race against time to track down the dumster before it was towed away.

"It's a total freak. It almost shouldn't have been found... The gardaí (Irish Police) are the heroes of the whole thing," said Pat Wallace, director of the National Museum. The finds have been described as the most significant discovery of Irish Bronze Age gold work for a long time and the discs are the first to have been discovered since the 19th Century. The Coggalbeg Hoard is now on display at the National Museum of Ireland.

Sources: Irish Times, Irish Examiner (24 June 2010)
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Anthropologists say they have discovered the 3.6 million-year-old partial skeleton of a creature that came from the same species as Lucy, but was 400,000 years older and at least as good at walking upright. Their analysis suggests that upright walking, the trademark trait for humans and their extinct kin, goes back further in time than some might have assumed.

This skeleton, described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has a much longer name than Lucy: It was dubbed Kadanuumuu, which means "big man" in Ethiopia's Afar language. Like the 3.3 million-year-old Lucy skeleton, Kadanuumuu was found in the East African country's Afar region, and shares the species name Australopithecus afarensis.

Australopiths are fossil species that share some traits with chimpanzees - for instance, protruding faces and small brains - but share other traits with humans. Most importantly, their skeletons appear to have been built for upright walking. Arizona State University paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson, who discovered Lucy back in 1974, said the latest discovery adds to a "treasure trove" of hundreds of australopith fossils from East Africa.

The first bone of Kadanuumuu's skeleton was found in 2005 in the Woranso-Mille area of the Afar region, about 30 miles north of where Lucy was discovered. Over the three years that followed, more than 30 additional bones were unearthed and pieced together for analysis.

The head of the research team, Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, said that Kadanuumuu's skeleton was clearly made for walking, based on measurements of bones including the limbs, clavicle and shoulder blade, the rib cage and the pelvis. In fact, its arrangement was better-suited for upright walking than Lucy's, even though it came from an earlier time in evolutionary history. The key measurement indicated that Kadanuumuu's lower limbs were more elongated than Lucy's - which would make walking easier.

"There is good grounds that advanced humanlike walking actually evolved long before people thought," Haile-Selassie said.

Kadanuumuu is thought to have stood 5 to 5½ feet tall, while Lucy stood only 3½ feet tall. That's not unusual: Anthropologists have found that A. afarensis exhibited significant size differences between the male and the female of the species, a quality known as sexual dimorphism. The diminutive stature of Lucy, which is still the most complete australopith skeleton found to date, may have initially led some scientists down the wrong path, Haile-Selassie said. "Most of the misinterpretations were largely based on the size of Lucy and her sex."

If the conclusions made by Haile-Selassie and his colleagues are correct, the saga of how we became human is much more ancient than some might have thought. But in fact, the conclusions are consistent with another famous find, the 1976 discovery of the Laetoli footprints in Tanzania. Those prints, which were preserved in volcanic ash 3.6 million years ago, led scientists to suggest that upright walking was mastered well before Lucy's time. "What we have now is the skeletal evidence to complement those footprints," Haile-Selassie said.

All this could lead anthropologists to look further back for the origins of upright walking. Perhaps Australopithecus anamensis, which lived in East Africa between 4.2 million and 3.9 million years ago, was the species that picked up the trick. Perhaps it all started with Ardipithecus ramidus, which is thought to have split its time between the trees and the ground in Ethiopia 4.4 million years ago (though there's some controversy over that claim).

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Neanderthal man was living in Britain at the start of the last ice age - 40,000 years earlier than previously thought, archaeologists have reported.

Tests on sediment burying two ancient flint hand tools used to cut meat showed they date from around 100,000 years ago - proving Neanderthals were living in Britain at this time. Until now, scientists have believed that the country was uninhabited during this period.

The tools were discovered at the junction of the M25/A2 road junction at Dartford, Kent. We know that Neanderthals inhabited Northern France at this time, but this new evidence suggests that as soon as sea levels dropped, and a 'land bridge' appeared across the English Channel, they made the journey by foot to Kent.

Early pre-Neanderthals inhabited Britain before the last ice age, but were forced south by the severe cold about 200,000 years ago.

The new discovery, commissioned by Oxford Archaeology, showed they returned to Britain much earlier than 60,000 years ago, as previous evidence suggested.

Oxford Archaeology Project Manager David Score said: 'The fieldwork uncovered a significant amount of activity at the Dartford site in the Bronze Age and Roman periods, but it is deeper trenches excavated through much older sediments which have yielded the most interesting results - shedding light on a long period when there was assumed to have been an absence of early man from Britain.'

One theory is that Neanderthals were attracted back to Kent by the flint-rich chalk downs which were visible from France. These supported herds of mammoth, rhino, horse and deer - an important source of food in sub-arctic conditions back then.

'These are people who had no real shelter - no houses, not even caves - so we can only speculate that by the time they returned, they had developed physiologically to cope with the cold, as well as developing behavioral strategies such as planning winter stores and making good use of fire,' said Dr Wenban-Smith.

Dr Wenban-Smith explained more evidence was needed to date their presence more accurately, to show how many were living in Kent at this time, how far they roamed into Britain and how long they stayed.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde, the Minister of Culture for Spain announced that visitors would once again be allowed to enter the Altamira Caves in the Cantabria region of northern Spain. The decision goes against the advice of the CSIC, the government's main scientific advisory body.

The caves, discovered in 1879, have been called the 'Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic art' because of the wall paintings of herds of bison and other animals. Unesco declared the caves a World Heritage Site in 1985.

The site was closed in 1977 when it was realized that carbon dioxide from the lungs of visitors was damaging the wall paintings. It reopened in 1982, but the number of visitors per year was severely restricted. At times, the waiting list to view the ancient art was three years. In 2002, green mold was detected on the walls in the main chamber, and access was closed to the public. Similar mold problems have arisen on cave paintings in France. The atmosphere within the caves is affected by light, body heat and moisture from perspiration.

Local authorities have welcomed the decision to once again allow visits. Miguel Angel Revilla, the president of the Cantabrian region in northern Spain said, "Altamira is an asset we cannot do without." He added that he would invite US President Barack Obama to be the first person to view the caves when they reopened. "I have already written the invitation letter, and in English."

But scientists are less enthusiastic. "The people who go in the cave have the bad habit of moving, breathing and perspiring," was one conclusion reached in CSIC report published in April. "We have made it very clear that it should not be reopened at this time," said Sergio Sanchez Moral, director of the team that spent the last two years analyzing the caves and treating the problem mold. "The caves have recovered from the damage, but to open them again is not a good idea. The risks are immeasurable."

In Santillana del Mar, a few hundred feet from the original caves, there is a museum with an exact replica of caves.

Sources: Yahoo! News (8 June 2010), (9 June 2010)
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When they first detected traces of an 800-year-old wigwam on a bluff over the Patuxent River last year, archaeologists celebrated what they said was the oldest human structure yet found in Maryland (USA). Now, deeper excavation at the site is yielding details of much earlier settlement, extending its history back to at least 3,000 years ago.

"As far as I know, it's older than anything in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, perhaps the oldest structures in the Chesapeake region," said Anne Arundel County archaeologist Al Luckenbach, leader of the dig. And that's just the age that's been established by carbon 14 dating. Slicing deeper in the sandy bluff overlooking the Patuxent's broad marsh, Luckenbach's crew has found stone tools suggesting humans were exploiting the river's abundance as long as 10,000 years ago. Called Pig Point, the site is producing a gusher of ancient artifacts - decorated pottery, tools crafted from stone and bone, ornaments and food waste.

"Some of the ceramics that have come out of this site are really just astounding," said Maureen Kavanagh, chief archaeologist at the Maryland Historical Trust and a specialist in ceramics. There have been pot fragments with incised angular decorations or rims crimped like a pie crust. Diggers found an intact paint pot the size of a child's fist, and a miniature, decorated pot the size of a thimble.

Archaeologists say some of their discoveries are so exotic in this region, they suggest Pig Point was a center of trade among native people as far-flung as Ohio, Michigan and New York. Even today, the town site overlooks broad expanses of wild rice and Tuckahoe - river plants that would have helped to feed the native people. Trash middens unearthed in the dig are yielding the remains of freshwater mussels, oysters, fish, beaver, muskrat, otter, deer, duck, nuts and more. Archaeologists have also found carbonized corn kernels, evidence of agriculture.

Among the finds at Pig Point is a stone projectile point. The flint was traced to a formation in Ohio, and it was fashioned in a style typical of the mound-building Hopewell tradition that flourished between 200 BCE and 500 CE in from West Virginia to southern Indiana. The Hopewell people were known, among other things, for their far-flung exchange routes. Other items include a rolled copper bead from Michigan and green jasper from New York. The finds demonstrate that Pig Point people were in contact with other trade centers at some distance, and their town was itself a semi-permanent base camp and trade center, like others found along rivers in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Source: The Baltimore Sun (12 June 2010)
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A painting of two extinct birds found in northern Australia is believed to be one of the oldest pieces of rock art ever discovered. Scientists believe the image found on a remote plateau in the Northern Territory could be up to 40,000 years old.

The painting shows two giant birds that resemble a genyornis, an ancient flightless creature that is believed to have become extinct in Australia more than 40,000 years ago.

If it was painted at a time when this mega fauna was still alive, as some experts believe, then it would be among the oldest pieces of rock art ever found.


A new radiocarbon study concludes that much of the assumed chronology was right, though it corrects some controversial dates and may overturn a few pet theories.

Egyptian records, such as the writings of the 3rd century B.C.E. historian Manetho and inscriptions found at key sites such as Saqqara and Karnak, provide what are called "floating chronologies" because they are internally consistent but not anchored to absolute dates. On the other hand, they sometimes refer to astronomical events whose dates can be calculated today.

Thus, scholars are confident that they are not wildly off the mark. But it's difficult to be precise. For example, the first known pyramid, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, was built as a tomb for King Djoser, and historians usually put the beginning of his reign between 2667 and 2592 B.C.E. But one recent paper by Spence, based on astronomical calculations, put it as much as 75 years later. Radiocarbon dating has been too imprecise to resolve these contradictions because in this period it usually has error ranges of between 100 and 200 years.

A team led by Christopher Bronk Ramsey of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom adopted a two-pronged strategy to get around radiocarbon's limitations. First, researchers searched museum collections around the world for plant remains directly associated with the reigns of particular kings or periods, often using offerings from pyramids where the kings were buried. The 211 plant samples were radiocarbon dated.

Second, the team used a mathematical modeling approach called Bayesian statistics to compare the patterns in the radiocarbon and historical dates and come up with the most likely correlation between them. The researchers constructed a separate model for each of the three main Egyptian periods: Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom. This allowed them to increase the precision of radiocarbon dating of each period to 76, 53, and 24 years, respectively.

As the researchers reported in Science, they found that the Old Kingdom, which kicked off with Djoser's reign, began between 2691 and 2625 B.C.E. The New Kingdom, which starts with the reign of Ahmose, began between about 1570 and 1544 B.C.E. New Kingdom pharaoh Rameses II, considered the greatest of the Egyptian kings by historians, clocks in between 1297 and 1273 B.C.E., and King Tut between 1353 to 1331 B.C.E.

The dating ranges are earlier than some historians had previously proposed. For example, in a 2000 Nature paper, Spence argued, based on the astronomical alignments of Egyptian pyramids, that Djoser's reign was somewhat later. "I am more than happy to accept" the new results, Spence says, adding that the Old Kingdom dating is "particularly important" because "this is the first time there has been anything firm to which to pin our historical relative chronologies."

Yet the new study does not resolve all of the outstanding issues. In a Perspective accompanying the paper, archaeologist Hendrik Bruins of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel points out that one major controversy remains unresolved: the timing of the massive eruption of the volcanic island of Thera in the Aegean Sea, that transformed the history of the eastern Mediterranean and has important implications for understanding the relationship between Egypt and the Minoans, another powerful culture of the time.

Previous radiocarbon dating suggests that the eruption took place at least 100 years before the New Kingdom began, which the new dating puts at no earlier than 1570 B.C.E. But radiocarbon and historical dating by University of Vienna archaeologist Manfred Bietak's team at Tell el-Dab'a in Egypt has concluded that the Thera eruption took place during the New Kingdom era.


Were the primary ancestors of today's Native Americans really the first people to set foot in the New World? Genetic evidence suggests so, but ancient skeletons tell a different story. Now, the most detailed analysis yet of ancient American skulls concludes that there were two distinct waves of colonizers from Asia, suggesting that another group got here first.

A team of paloeanthropologists compared the skulls of several dozen Paleoamericans, which date back to the early days of migration 11,000 years ago, with those of more than 300 Amerindians, which date to 1000 years ago.

The Paleoamerican remains came from four sites in South and Central America,and the researchers also compared them with more than 500 skulls from East Asia. In all, the team found clear differences in the shapes and sizes of the Paleoamerican and Amerindian samples. That suggests that more than one group of individuals migrated to the Americas from Asia, the team reports online today in PLoS ONE. And due to the age of the skeletons, the researchers say, this other group of individuals arrived before the primary ancestors of today's Native Americans.

Nevertheless, Schurr warns that the lack of large numbers of Paleoamerican skulls makes progress difficult and that the small sample sizes may not show the true morphological and genetic diversity of early American populations. The field, he notes, continues to be hampered by the lack of ancient DNA data because of poor bone preservation. Genetic studies of modern populations, by contrast, can draw on large numbers of samples.

Dennis Stanford, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington,
D.C., adds that the authors could have benefited from additional samples from North America as well as more Asian skulls. He believes that there likely were three or four major migrations.


Romanian experts have discovered the most ancient cave paintings found to date in Central Europe, aged up to 35,000 years old, Romanian and French scientists reported. The pictures show animals including a buffalo, a horse and even a rhinoceros.

"It is for the first time in Central Europe that... art this old has been found and confirmed", said a joint statement from the Romanian Federation of Speleology -- the scientific study of caves -- and Jean Clottes, an expert working with UNESCO.

It is a "major discovery" and "its authenticity is certain", Clottes, a specialist in prehistoric art, told AFP. He was called on by Romanian specialists to certify the discovery.

His team included cavers, a paleontologist, an archaeologist and two cave art specialists and estimated the drawings were "attributable to a period of ancient rock art, the Gravettian or the Aurignacian (between 23,000 and 35,000 years ago)."
Carbon tests must confirm these estimates, they said.

The black-paint drawings, discovered three or four months ago in the
Coliboaia cave in northwestern Romania, depict animals, including a buffalo,
a horse, bear heads and rhinoceros, federation chief Viorel Traian Lascu


Tools made about 11,000 years ago were found at the Maple Avenue site of Keene's new middle school (New Hampshire, USA), which Stoddard archaeologist Robert Goodby said could "easily be one of the most important [archaeological] sites in the state, if not New England."

Goodby began his site review, overseen by the N.H. Division of Historical Resources, in November. In addition to the high number of artifacts, few Granite State sites hold older finds, except one in Swanzey where 11,600-year-old stone tools were found. The first items found at the Keene site were small chips of tools - the residue of Paleolithic people making sharp instruments like arrows - from material quarried as many as 200 miles away in Berlin or Vermont.

Source: Sentinel Source (18 June 2010)
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A site at Marden, near Devizes (Wiltshire, England), rivalled Stonehenge and Avebury in its day, says English Heritage. A six-week dig at the site close to the village, will start on June 28, 2010.

Unlike Stonehenge and Avebury, Marden Henge no longer has any surviving standing stones, but its sheer size is astounding. Comprising a substantial and well-preserved bank with an internal ditch enclosing an area of some 10.5 hectares it is one of the largest Neolithic henges in Britain.

Archaeologists are particularly intrigued by evidence of a huge mound at the center of the henge similar to a smaller version of Silbury Hill. The mound collapsed in 1806 and was leveled by 1817. English Heritage hopes to find out more about this feature by obtaining dating material from any surviving features within its center.

The Henge is on the road out of the village towards Beechingstoke, at Hatfield Farm, and is on private land.


Samir Patel, Senior Editor of Archaeology Magazine spoke to our Archaeological group recently about this amazing yet very remote site. See Archaeology Magazine May/June issue for the startling photos!

There's no clear path to Hire Benakal in the hills north of the Tungabhadra River in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. On a gentle slope are scores of dolmens made of slabs of granite 10 feet tall and weighting 10 tons or more. The monuments were built over more than 1,000 years spanning the southern Indian Iron Age (1200-500 BCE) and Early Historic (500 BCE-500 CE) periods, and there are more than 1,000 of them across nearly 50 acres, from modest rock enclosures to mausoleum-like tombs.

Historical sources are vague, but Hire Benakal's existence may have been documented as early as the 1850s, and the site was first examined in detail by historian A. Sundara of Karnatak University in the 1960s. In 2007, University of Chicago anthropology graduate student Andrew Bauer conducted the first systematic survey of the site and its environs. It was long thought that the Iron Age people of India were nomadic, making a megalithic site such as Hire Benakal difficult to explain. But recent surveys, including Bauer's, have turned up many settlements, including two within a mile of Hire Benakal, that show the people lived in villages and practiced agriculture and pastoralism.

Bauer has concluded that Hire Benakal was more than just an isolated cemetery; it was also a part of an active landscape, and a place where social status and inequality first began to develop. "We really understand the site much more in context now, because I surveyed all around it," he says. It was important socially and is absolutely overwhelming to the eye. If it were not so remote, Hire Benakal might be a national treasure.

Monday, June 07, 2010


A clay figure believed to be 13,000 years old and one of the oldest in the country, was found in an archaeological site in Higashiomi, Shiga Prefecture, the Shiga Prefectural Association for Cultural Heritage said.

The tiny figure, 3.1 centimeters in height and 14.6 grams in weight, depicts a female torso with breasts and a waistline.

The figure, which was discovered at the Aidanikumahara archaeological site, is from an incipient era of the Jomon Pottery Culture, according to the association.

Another female clay figure from approximately the same era was found in Matsusaka, Mie Prefecture, in 1996.

To see the image, go to